In the last several minutes of the new Broadway musical Amazing Grace, you may think you’ve accidentally stumbled into the Mark Hellinger Theatre, home of the Times Square Church. (Amazing Grace actually plays the Nederlander.) Audience members stand, sing along, and wave their hands in the air as if to commune with the unseen. Those made uncomfortable by such conspicuous displays of faith may be repelled by Amazing Grace, but if you’re able to politely ignore it (or better yet, join in), you’ll find a mildly enjoyable adventure enhanced greatly by sumptuous design and staging. Of course, a show like this has the potential to be so much more.
As it stands, the story behind the creation of Amazing Grace is far more inspiring than the one onstage. It features a book, music, and lyrics by Christopher Smith, an ex-cop from Philadelphia who has endeavored to bring Amazing Grace to the stage for nearly two decades. This is his first work of professional writing. Amazingly, he’s attracted the financial support of investors outside of the circle of usual suspects, so moved were they by the work.
With the help of co-book writer Arthur Giron, Smith tells the story of John Newton, the 18th-century English cleric who wrote the words to the song “Amazing Grace.” One of the most popular hymns ever composed, “Amazing Grace” is strongly associated with abolitionism and the civil rights movement. President Obama recently sang it during his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people murdered by Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina. Newton wrote the lyrics after his own spiritual conversion.
The play begins in 1744, with Newton (Josh Young) returned to Chatham, where his father (Tom Hewitt) is a successful slave trader. He’s in love with the beautiful Mary (Erin Mackey). Unfortunately, the aristocratic Major Gray (Chris Hoch, existing in the villain’s sweet spot between hilarious and odious) wants Mary for himself. Gray arranges for Newton to be impressed (forcibly drafted) into the Royal Navy. Along with his loyal slave Thomas (Chuck Cooper), he becomes shipwrecked on Plantain Island off the coast of Sierra Leone. That’s where he meets Princess Peyai (the dangerous and sultry Harriet D. Foy), a slaver interested in expanding her trade network. Newton immediately takes up the family occupation in her service.
Director Gabriel Barre endows this twisty plot with thrilling action and visual splendor. Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s set features two tall masts flanking the proscenium, perfect for a maritime adventure. The stage bursts with rococo patterns and rich fabrics thanks to Toni-Leslie James’ stunning costumes. The versatile Christopher Gattelli choreographs English contradance and West African dance with equal flair. In a moment of organized chaos, Barre stages a harrowing slave auction that is violently broken up by masked abolitionists, which the talented ensemble executes with energetic gusto.
The secondary players give the most memorable performances. Laiona Michelle brings a sense of urgency and real stakes to the role of Mary’s slave, Nanna. Equally, the betrayal Thomas feels at the hands of Newton becomes frighteningly real in Cooper’s unforgiving gaze and powerful voice.
By comparison, the trials and tribulations of John and Mary feel bland and insignificant. Despite possessing a lovely soprano, Mackey fades into the woodwork as the milquetoast Mary. The handsome Young cannot shake the fact that he is playing a somewhat arrogant and self-involved protagonist. After several near-death experiences, Newton starts to believe that God has saved him for greater things. The ambivalence you feel about him when he’s a prickly nonbeliever fades to full-blown dislike after he becomes a grandstanding born-again.
Broadway rarely features such sincere conversion stories. The closest comparison is Les Misérables. But where Victor Hugo tells the very Catholic tale of a sinner reformed after many decades, Amazing Grace is decidedly more Protestant: Despite his bad behavior, John Newton is saved through God’s irresistible grace. He is one of the elect. There is something deeply troubling about the notion that God has selected Newton above the thousands of humans he and others sell over the course of the show. Where is their salvation? Has God predestined them for a lifetime of bondage?
Smith never really asks these questions with his earnest book and lyrics. An undeniably talented songwriter, his exciting score (complete with baroque embellishments and harpsichord arrangements by Joseph Church) feels like window dressing on the skeletal remains of a much more robust story. Smith’s dialogue occasionally gives us brief glimpses of what that could be.
“Do you think cotton picks itself? Or that sugar just appears on your table?” John asks the abolition-sympathizing Mary, even though he could easily be addressing these questions to members of the audience. “The coffee in your cupboard, the indigo in your dress, even the teak in your church pews depends on the [slave] trade.” Even in 2015, the innocuous labels on our clothing (“Made in Bangladesh, Cambodia, P.R.C.”) regularly mask far darker origins.
According to Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy author Kevin Bales, ”There are more slaves alive today than all the people stolen from Africa in the time of the transatlantic slave trade.” Smith and Giron’s gently prodding script may lead some members of the audience to think about these modern-day slaves, but more likely the period setting will leave viewers with the comforting impression that this is an ugly chapter of humanity buried safely in the past. Any doubts are dispelled by the churchy sing-along of “Amazing Grace” at the show’s conclusion. How could we Americans be complicit in slavery when, like John Newton, we are blessed by God’s irresistible grace? It’s a feel-good delusion that many people undoubtedly seek, but a show like this has the power to offer something much meatier.